Why Pokémon Diamond and Pearl is Better Than You Think
Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, which came to market in 2006, was released to little fanfare. Even though they outsold all other Pokémon titles upon launch in both Japan and abroad, the generation meant to grow up on Diamond and Pearl has shown nowhere near the same amount of continued support that the original Pokémon games received. Many people felt that Diamond and Pearl failed to improve upon the beloved Ruby and Sapphire while also not introducing new ideas. Pokémon Black and White only pushed general opinion further down as well, as its modernization of the Pokémon formula overshadowed its older sibling.
Generation 4 was the textbook middle child — not particularly offensive, but not interesting either. The wake created by the recent Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl remakes provides the perfect opportunity to explore what made Gen 4 so underrated and overlooked, especially with the hindsight of how the Pokémon franchise turned out in the future. So what does the island region of Sinnoh have to offer?
Diamond and Pearl were the first entries in the Pokémon series to mix 2D and 3D assets, creating a much more vibrant world with towering mountains and skyscrapers. This practice is an absolute no-go nowadays, but the lo-fi and purposefully cartoonish 3D building models allowed them to blend into the setting seamlessly.
They also brought back the day-night system from Gold and Silver, where the world would dynamically change according to the time of day. Atmospheres of locations would be completely different during the early morning, midday, evening, and night, along with introducing implications on gameplay that mattered. While they lacked the animative battle animations of Gen 5 that made the otherwise visually bland turn-based combat fun to watch, Diamond and Pearl made up for it with the diverse design of Sinnoh as a whole. Serene lakes, solar-powered coastal towns, windmill farms, and snowy mountains make up the beautiful world that the player explores. Sinnoh looked like a real place rather than just a playground for the Pokémon battling to happen.
Yet the greatest strength of Diamond and Pearl lay in their soundtracks. While still noticeably chiptune — lacking the advantage of more sophisticated sound card systems and programming capabilities — the games managed to work within their confines to deliver a deeply satisfying soundtrack. Instead of overbearing tracks with complicated melodies and complex arrangements, Diamond and Pearl’s soundtracks served a functional purpose of enhancing the mood at any point in the game.
Route themes are breezy and light, to communicate the sense of freedom in the Pokémon Trainer’s journey, while battles use driving basslines to pump up the intensity. The slower pace of Diamond and Pearl overall put these tracks at the forefront of players’ attention, turning the music into a vital part of the game’s entire atmosphere. Whether it be the wanderlust feelings of traveling on the major routes or working your way through a tough gym, quality music would accompany your thoughts everywhere you went.
The Pokémon design was at its creative peak as well. Diamond and Pearl continued much in the same vein as Gold and Silver with historical and mythological themes, taking inspiration from the real world while also building its own mythos. Chimchar and its final evolution, Infernape, is a direct reference to Sun Wukong, the Chinese monkey king of fame. The legendary Pokémon, like Gen 3, were actual figures in the world and not just cool designs, making it feel all the more rewarding when you fought against them and won. Gamefreak still had cool concepts to pull inspiration from before resorting to sea urchins and sandcastles, leading to fan favourite characters like Lucario, Garchomp, and Lopunny, striking a nice balance between the mundane and the fantastical with the 106 new Pokémon introduced in Diamond and Pearl.
Another major department that Diamond and Pearl made was trying to establish a more cohesive universe and story. In line with the mythological theme of the games as a whole, the settings, and the world was fleshed out beyond just pretty sights and randomly placed NPCs. Towns had histories and backstories, differed in their demographics and how their citizens lived, along with many more NPCs that could be interacted with for side-quests or fluff dialogue. Hidden myths and stories explained the background of landmarks like Mt. Cornet, the three lakes, and the strange ruins around Sinnoh, bringing a rich sense of immersion to the world.
Short blurbs in conversation and appropriately placed signs did most of the world-building rather than monologues and exposition, avoiding a common issue JRPGs tend to face. When combined with the visuals and music, Diamond and Pearl’s atmosphere stands almost second-to-none in the Pokémon franchise.
Improvements in gameplay and technology
Not only was Diamond and Pearl a powerful audiovisual experience, pushing the DS’s admittedly shoddy hardware to the limits, but made significant improvements on gameplay fronts as well. Aside from introducing new moves and Pokémon, Gen 4 had some essential changes that would shape the franchise moving forward.
Fundamental changes, such as giving each attack a Physical or Special attack characteristic made gameplay much more tactical than before. Items and held items also became a much more relevant factor as powerful items like the Life Orb and Type Plates were introduced. For the most hardcore fans, the breeding and EV system was expanded upon, allowing players to min-max their Pokémon to perfection. Combined with the harder difficulty and leveling of Diamond and Pearl, these changes allowed for richer gameplay overall. Stats were no longer random numbers that most players could ignore, and building a solid, well-balanced team was necessary to beat the game.
The most important part though, especially from a modern perspective, was the advancements in online and wireless gameplay. Like the gaming industry’s foray into online in general, Diamond and Pearl opened up many opportunities with the ability to connect to players around the world. The hardcore players who appreciated all the new combat changes were now able to show off their min-maxed Pokémon to each other in online duels. The Global Trade System allowed players to trade Pokémon with each other regardless of distance, encouraging players to complete their Pokedex.
In conjunction with online chat forums blowing up in popularity around this time, Diamond and Pearl helped kickstart the online Pokémon community that is still alive today. Admittedly, the system was quite janky — the servers would barely work half the time with opponents dropping out randomly, and communication was limited to post-card length messages. Generations moving forward would rectify both technological and design issues, but Diamond and Pearl laid down the necessary groundwork.
Flawed, but still satisfying
The main criticism levied against Gen 4, and the one most responsible for its overlooked nature is the relatively slow pacing of gameplay outside of combat. Walk speeds, cutscenes, and even menus were slower than they needed to be, dragging down the experience as a whole. The increased difficulty of the game, especially in the latter half, also forced players to grind more than they might have been willing to. The general lethargy of Gen 4 definitely scared off some players coming off the heels of the much faster-paced Ruby and Sapphire, but the game was weak in other areas as well. While the main storyline made logical sense and had actual stakes, it was generally forgettable.
Team Galactic was too cartoonishly evil to be anything other than a token antagonist. While the story provided many looks into the lore and mythos of Sinnoh in organic ways, the grandiosity of the setting didn’t line up well with the simplistic nature of the plot and themes. Characters talked to each other and had a decent amount of personality, but everything still feels relatively childish, making it difficult to get attached to the story. Compared to future generations, which made phenomenal improvements in these two areas specifically, it’s easy to understand why Diamond and Pearl slipped through the memories of many players.
But even though they faced some shortcomings, they were still able to deliver an enjoyable experience that both long-time fans and newcomers could enjoy. The best word to describe Diamond and Pearl would be cohesive — well put together, thought-out design, representing the Pokémon formula at its peak. In this sense, perhaps being a middle-child was an advantage. Without the expectations that the younger generations faced and the lack of established norms the older generation struggled with, Diamond and Pearl didn’t need to rely on any gimmick or idea to carry itself. Pokémon Platinum, the “ultimate” version of Diamond and Pearl, similar to Pokémon Emerald or Crystal, even fixed many of the issues people found with the game and added improvements on top of it. Why did Generation 4 get relegated to such a middle child status?
It was a symptom of a much larger issue, where Nintendo, which had previously cornered the market for young children’s entertainment, began to lose its throne in the 2000s. The rise of competitors Microsoft and Sony saw a massive rise in FPS and multiplayer games, eventually becoming the face of video games themselves. The generation meant to grow up as Pokémon kids with Diamond and Pearl instead grew up with Halo and Grand Theft Auto, whose graphical, gameplay, and simple premise was much more attractive to impressionable children than just catching virtual monsters. There was no second generation of Pokémon kids, and as a result, almost every generation past Gen 3 lacks the notoriety and nostalgia factor that previous entries had.
Nowadays, the Pokémon franchise is very much a middle child itself. It’s not JRPG enough to please JRPG fans, not narratively rich enough to please an audience that increasingly demands high-quality storytelling, and not difficult enough to challenge most gamers. The turn-based gameplay has seen almost zero changes over the past two decades and has failed to grab newer audiences. The height of cultural dominance that it once achieved is now lost to time, as the franchise itself has lost a lot of its luster and appeal in a more modern era. While Pokémon Legends is looking to revitalize the series by taking it in a new direction, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl will most likely stick to the tried and true Pokémon formula. Things don’t always have to be radically new to be enjoyable, especially if they’re recreating something great — one can only hope that the remakes live up to the criminally underrated brilliance of the originals.